Princess of Veils

SUNANDA MEHTA : Sat Mar 24 2007, 14:20 hrs

Princess of Veils 1 She carefully runs a blue streak of eyeliner on her eyelids. Even as it dries, her lips are outlined with a thin pencil and then filled in with shimmering pink lipstick, to go with her nail paint. Just a hint of blush on the cheeks and her face as pretty as a picture, Mitali is set for the day. You worry about the number of heads that will turn around to catch a glimpse of her on busy roads as she whizzes past on her two-wheeler. Well, you needn’t. For just before she leaves, the collegian picks up her scarf and in a jiffy it is dexterously swathed around her face in a manner that would give Sholay’s Kalia a life-long complex.. Only her eyes are left uncovered. Not for long though. A pair of dark glasses covers the kohl-lined eyes. Her cover-up job complete, Mitali strides out confidently to face the world.

Princess of Veils 2 Outside, Meera, Jaya and Sunita wait for her in a similar guise. And as the foursome straddle their gearless two-wheelers and zip off to the college, no one really gives a second glance to what might seem like an invasion from the Chambal. For Pune has got used to its Bandit Queens. It is a title painstakingly earned over the years but for women it is the most effective means of protecting their hair and faces against the sun and the high pollution levels in this city of two-wheelers.

“It is really the best way to protect your skin against the dust and the sun,” says Nabeela Nisar, an undergraduate student from Uttar Pradesh, studying in the city’s Wadia College, who feels compelled to don the mask even when she is riding pillion. Did she do the same in Uttar Pradesh? “No. But then here I tend to move a lot more on the road,’’ she says. It’s an opinion echoed by Niharika Jain, a 25-year-old advertising professional, who covers 10 km between her home and office on a two-wheeler, in a similar veiled avatar.

It’s not as if the city’s eves have not heard of discoveries like the helmet or the sun block. “Carrying a helmet is so cumbersome,” says collegian Monica Pawar. Since helmet is not compulsory for those riding two-wheelers in Pune, many give it a miss.

Princess of Veils 3 Thus the city with the highest number of women two-wheeler riders in the country — four lakh(*) at the last count — is also the one with the lowest sale of helmets. Probably, it can boast the highest sale of scarves. “Covering your face with a scarf or dupatta is the easiest, cheapest and the most effective way of dealing with the pollution levels. Even helmets don’t keep out the dust the way a tightly tied scarf does,’’ says Kavita Nanda, a schoolteacher, impervious to snide remarks about the pragmatic style statement. “I don’t object to this style — if one can call it that — but what really irritates me is when a girl thus masked, waves out to me from the road. How am I supposed to know who is waving at me? And then if you don’t return the greeting there’s hell to pay later. I’ve gone through that,’’ bemoans Vaibhav Patil, an engineering student.

Youngster Anita Bhavnani says the face cover also provides anonymity when required — going for a date with your boyfriend, for instance. “At least there’s no fear of your parents spotting you behind the guy on a bike,” grins the college girl.

Whatever the reasons, the fact remains that the masked beauties have become an identity of the city — to the extent that its denizens have stopped trying to either censure or analyse the mysterious and seemingly immutable phenomenon and have simply reconciled to it. In fact, a few years ago a French photographer even put up pictures of the veiled riders at one of his exhibitions dedicated to the city of Pune. The title? You guessed it — “The Bandit Queens”.


(*) A lakh is equal to one hundred thousand (100,000).

Source: Indian Express
(Editor's note: Photos are not from the original article, but found on the internet)

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